Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 2 January 2024


Harvard president resigns amid plagiarism allegations, testimony backlash

Harvard University President Claudine Gay testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee Hearing on campus antisemitism on Capitol Hill on Dec. 5 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Harvard provost and chief academic officer Alan M. Garber, an economist and physician, will serve as interim president.

The decision came at a tumultuous time at Harvard as well as universities across the country, as the Israel-Gaza war intensifies divisions, protests, complaints of bigotry and concerns about safety on campus.

Gay faced complaints about how she initially handled those tensions, and her remarks during a December congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses aroused intense criticism.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) slams the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University over their answers to questions about antisemitism. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Harvard Corporation, which is one of the university’s governing boards, expressed its unanimous support for her Dec. 12. “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” they wrote.

More than 700 faculty members called on the corporation not to give in to external pressure. Gay, who became the first Black president of Harvard in July, has deep knowledge of the school after earning her doctorate there and leading the school’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

But Gay also faced criticism on another front, as multiple allegations of plagiarism surfaced.

In October, in response to questions from the New York Post about her scholarship, university officials said Gay asked the Harvard Corporation to conduct an independent review. That inquiry, which covered all of her published work from 1993 to 2019, was not led by the research integrity units at the university or its Faculty of Arts and Sciences. That decision was made to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, according to school officials, since those offices report to the president.

A panel of three political scientists unaffiliated with Harvard and a subcommittee of the board considered the allegations. The board announced that Gay would request corrections to some work to include missing citations or quotations, but it said that she did not conduct research misconduct.

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The review did not include Gay’s 1997 dissertation. But additional questions, including an article in the Washington Free Beacon and social media posts from activist Christopher Rufo and journalist Christopher Brunet, in December led to more scrutiny of her work. The House Education and the Workforce Committee also launched a probe into the plagiarism allegations and asked the university to produce certain documents.

After further review, university leaders announced last month that Gay would submit three updates to her dissertation, adding quotations and citations. But it again said that the omissions did not constitute research misconduct.

Some scholars were skeptical of the plagiarism allegations, saying Gay had not taken credit for others’ original ideas or data, just had minor echoes of jargon and routine language from political science. Others said the growing number of allegations was troubling, and asked whether she had been held to a less-strict standard than the university’s own students would be.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), whose questioning of the college leaders at the Dec. 5 hearing helped elicit some of the harshest criticism, on Tuesday posted on the social platform X that “@Harvard knows that this long overdue forced resignation of the antisemitic plagiarist president is just the beginning of what will be the greatest scandal of any college or university in history.”

Meanwhile, Rufo wrote on X, “Rather than take responsibility for minimizing antisemitism, committing serial plagiarism, intimidating the free press, and damaging the institution, she calls her critics racist. This is the poison of DEI ideology. Glad she’s gone.”

On Tuesday, the Harvard Corporation in a statement expressed its gratitude for Gay, who will resume her position on Harvard’s faculty. “We are grateful for the extraordinary contributions she has made — and will continue to make — as a leader, a teacher, a scholar, a mentor, and an inspiration to many.”

The board said it accepted Gay’s resignation “with sorrow.”

“While President Gay has acknowledged missteps and has taken responsibility for them, it is also true that she has shown remarkable resilience in the face of deeply personal and sustained attacks,” the board said. “While some of this has played out in the public domain, much of it has taken the form of repugnant and in some cases racist vitriol directed at her through disgraceful emails and phone calls. We condemn such attacks in the strongest possible terms.”

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